ALACHUA COUNTY – Florida and Georgia were among the first states to announce the reopening of businesses and relaxation of social distancing, self-isolation and mask wearing rules. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis first announced a “stay at home order” on April 1 as Florida cases spiked over a 1,000 per day. Between April 1 and May 16, the numbers varied with 13 days of over 1,000 new cases a day but a general decline with larger gaps between the spikes. Less than a month later, Florida began to reopen. A number of health experts expressed concern that it was too early to allow close contact and make safety precautions like mask covering voluntary rather than mandatory.
After a month in self quarantine, people took advantage of the relaxed rules and flooded beaches, parks and springs While many stores required masks to be worn inside the store, many backed down due to threats against employees by people who refused to wear them. While the state had suggested guidelines for the number of people per group and regulations, some people chose to ignore them in favor of personal comfort. Since asymptomatic people can still have and spread the virus during the two-week incubation period, this created a situation where increased exposure could spike the numbers and a second wave was feared by medical personnel.
Two weeks later, the numbers rose dramatically and have continued to increase daily. For the sixth day in a row, Florida has seen a single-day record for the number of new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state at the rate of over 2,000 a day, higher numbers than the original spike. Some of this increase can be attributed to increase testing with more testing sites including mobile testing centers in smaller towns.
To date, over one million people have been tested. Florida is now testing more than 200,000 people a week, more than double the number tested weekly in mid-May. This only accounts for 4 percent of the population and does not entirely explain the sudden and dramatic increase. Test results for more than 39,300 individuals were reported to the Florida Department of Health (DOH) as of midnight, Monday, June 15. Of those, 7.4 percent of new cases tested positive as opposed to 5 percent two weeks ago.
Alachua County created a “stay at home” order almost two weeks before the governor made it statewide and has continued to make masks mandatory despite the state making them “suggested.” These rules, while unpopular with some, have helped keep the infection rate and death rate lower in Alachua than the average per population. As of June 16, Alachua was 20th of all counties with 564 confirmed cases and 10 deaths. Florida had 2,783 new cases on June 15 for a total of 80,109 and 2,993 deaths. That number of new cases is now the highest single-day jump since tracking began in March.
The increase in new cases come as the state continues the process of reopening businesses while also expanding testing for COVID-19. But even these high numbers are being questioned for their accuracy. DOH publishes total cases, not positive people. Cases are not currently created for those who receive positive antibody test results, and so DOH excludes them from that total, which means their numbers only reflect current cases, not people that were not tested for antibodies which would show they had it but have recovered. However, these people could have spread it to others without knowing.
Rebekah Jones was the data technician in charge of the DOH data website. Last month she was removed from the state's dashboard project after she questioned other officials' commitment to accessibility and transparency, according to some reports. While Jones says she was fired for questioning the accuracy of the charts, DOH countered she had "exhibited a repeated course of insubordination" during her tenure there. Jones contends that the state is under reporting the numbers and has put up a similar website detailing what she says is a more accurate and informative representation of the pandemic in Florida. According to her information there is an under count of over 8,000 cases from antibody tests.
Jones's website https://floridacovidaction.com is paid for entirely by donations. "Florida deserves a community-based dashboard that doesn't hide or fudge numbers," Jones said. Jones parallels her data alongside DOH’s coronavirus numbers, which are much lower, according to the website. The new dashboard also shows report cards on where each county stands on reopening.
While there are conflicting counts on the number of cases and in the cause of the sudden increase in the nation and Florida, the cases are rising and there is concern that the re-opening may have been premature. The state DOH dashboard and resource center can be found at http://www.floridahealth.gov/.
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